Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Well, yes

Public discourse in this country would be more civilised, productive, and robust if the left were less sanctimonious, less smugly certain of the righteousness of their cause, and more sensitive to the fact that everyone doesn’t see things their way.
I've mentioned before that this sanctimony is a real handicap for the left. As we're seeing in the Guardian this week, shrieking hysterically about how the other side is evil is a very good way of stopping yourself from thinking.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Calloo Callay!

Turn out I should have gone with my gut. I don't think I've ever been so astonished and delighted as I was by that exit poll. For even that to turn out pessimistic is just something else. Tory majority...

DC's obvious problem is that maintaining a majority of 4-5 over a Parliament is on the impossible side of difficult. Short of scrapping the FTPA and holding a snap election in 6 months (which would be punchy), there is one thing he could do to sort this.

The SNP have demanded full fiscal autonomy (so that as well as spending responsibilities, they also have tax-raising ones). The Tories' Strathclyde Commission recommended this anyway - so SNP and Tory policies are aligned. So offer that, and in exchange push through EVEL, ideally with SNP support, if necessary without.

The Tories have an 80 seat majority in England and Wales...

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Dangling from a Scottish rope

The one Tory attack that has really stuck this election is that a minority Labour administration would be dependent for its survival on the support of the SNP. It has stuck so well that Ed Miliband has been forced to disavow, in very clear terms, the idea that Labour would do a deal with the SNP. In fact, this is what he said:
he was “not going to have a Labour government if it means deals or coalitions with the SNP”
That's a very wide-ranging thing to say. No coalitions is one thing, but no deals? He went even further on the Today programme on Monday, saying that he wouldn't even have conversations with the SNP. I think I can see what he's driving at, but it's a very risky strategy. What he wants to convey is that his administration would not be dependent on the SNP; what he wants to promise is that he won't make any deals to get his Queen's Speech through. The problem is, of course, is that governing requires more than this - there are hundreds of bills that need to pass, and Labour would need SNP support for each one. The idea that this can be done without deals being cut (let alone without even talking to them) is absurd.

Labour are pinning their hopes on the line put by George Eaton:

The Nationalists’ leverage, however, would be weaker than they and the Tories suggest. Their pledge never to prop up a Conservative government automatically restrains their bargaining power. Roy Hattersley, who served in Callaghan’s cabinet, draws a contrast with the Liberals’ position at that time. “The only pressure on the Lib-Lab pact was from the Liberals in the country. The Liberals in the country didn’t want them to prop up a Labour government,” he told me. “The Scottish National voters desperately want a Labour government. Therefore the pressure is on them to come to a compromise with Labour in a way it wasn’t under David Steel. The trump card that Ed Miliband has in his hands is that Nicola Sturgeon will never be forgiven by Scotland if she’s instrumental in there being a Tory government.”
Labour, in other words, can put SNP support in their pocket and not worry about it. Unquestioning loyalty is guaranteed because, if the SNP don't support Labour, they put the Tories in. I'm not Scottish, and I find the surge in SNP support fairly baffling, but I don't think the SNP can be taken for granted like this. The key difference between the upcoming scenario and the Lib-Lab pact days is that in the late 70s Labour had a majority over the Tories. For Labour to fall, it needed the Liberals and the SNP to vote with the Tories to bring them down. If Labour have fewer seats than the Tories, then all that would be needed is the SNP's abstention.

A positive vote with the Tories to get rid of Labour would, I can see, be a stretch for the SNP. Merely refusing to keep propping up a failing Government? That's a much easier thing to imagine. And if Labour think they can avoid this without talking to them then they have another think coming.

So, it's a Labour budget, and the SNP have made noises that they might not be able to vote for it, because it doesn't give enough to Scotland. Does Miliband try and make concessions? His words above make that very hard. Does he ignore them and push on regardless? He risks losing the budget. He's painting himself into a corner that might prove very tricky to break free from...


Well, if the polls are right (and since last time I had a sort of gut feeling that they weren't, and then it turned out that they were, I'm going to stick with them this time), then we're probably going to see the Tories as the largest party, but unable to get to a majority even with the help of the Lib Dems. What happens next is really rather idle speculation - until we see what the numbers are, there's no way of seeing how the thing will work.

People are, however, getting very aerated about legitimacy. If the Coalition loses its majority, say Labour, then it will have no legitimacy and Cameron must resign. Ah, reply the Tories, but if the Tories win most votes and most seats, then a minority Labour administration, implicitly dependent on a separatist bloc of Scottish MPs would not have any legitimacy either. 'For God's sake,' reply various constitutional authorities, 'legitimacy is just numbers - any party that can get its Queen's Speech through is a legitimate one'.

The professors are obviously right in one sense. The actual law here is clear: the Prime Minister is the one who can command a majority in the Commons for his legislative programme. Equally, the law is clear that Cameron gets first go at trying:
Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.
Talk of a "constitutional coup" is balls. Cameron is entitled, as Prime Minister, to try and make the numbers work for him. If they don't, he will resign. That's where the problems start. For Cameron to have tried that approach, the Tories would have to have significantly more MPs than Labour: say 20 more. For Labour to form an administration in those circumstances, where they will have lost disastrously in Scotland, and appreciably in England will look odd to most voters. As Phillip Collins says, while a minority Govt formed by the second largest party is unquestionably legal, legality and legitimacy are separate concepts.

It's worth remembering in this context that in 2010, the numbers for a 'league of losers' coalition between Labour, Lib Dems, and nationalists just about stacked up. A Government led by Gordon Brown, and supported by every non-Tory party in the Commons would have had a majority. That would have been a Government that was perfectly constitutionally permissible, but would have had a continuing crisis of legitimacy.

Let's spare a thought for the potential nightmare result: Tories largest party but unable to get over the line with Lib Dem/DUP support; Labour second but unable even with SNP to get to majority. The rules say that Cameron should resign if he can't command confidence of the House AND there is a clear alternative. What happens next? Tune in next week...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Perspective is a funny thing

Ed Miliband's personal ratings have undeniably improved over the course of the campaign - they are now merely awful. I suspect (albeit without any actual evidence) that what has happened is that Labour supporters are rallying around their leader in the run-up to the election; it has been his poor rating by Labour supporters that has condemned Miliband to subterranean approval levels over the past five years.

With the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband now probably the most likely outcome to the election, we are starting to see articles saying that, actually, Ed has always been a strong, dynamic leader, and all that's happening now is that we're all seeing it. Steve Richards has written a good example here:
Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was
It's strange what this election has done to our sense of perspective though. I remember a leader of the opposition who, like Miliband, had experience at Cabinet level, and fought perceptions of weirdness and lack of leadership credentials; who kept a fractious party mostly stable, despite lack of strong input from senior figures in the last Government. His approval ratings were slightly higher than Ed Miliband's and he managed to get his party to 32% in the election - which is within a point or two of where I suspect Labour will end up this time.

William Hague was not exactly considered to be a success as opposition leader though.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


So, Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister, and we just have to get used to the fact that our Prime Minister says things like this:
You know what I think when I go round the country, you know? People are asking about the permutations in their own lives.
Of course they are. God help us.

Happy Times

God in Heaven but this election campaign is depressing. I appreciate that by following it mostly on Twitter I may well be getting a skewed vision of it, but has there ever been an election campaign that has been as uninspiring, and apparently mostly in bad faith as this one? In no particular order, here is a non-exhaustive list of the things that are actively making me miserable:
  • Every time I hear the Tories talking about the SNP;
  • Every time I hear anyone else saying that the Tories talking about the SNP is 'demeaning' or 'anti-Scottish';
  • Every time I see that the new Tory policy offer is another uncosted spending pledge;
  • Every time Ed Miliband makes foreign policy capital about reneging on the Syria vote;
  • Every time I see Alastair fucking Campbell saying anything at all;
  • Every time someone English says they wish they could vote SNP;
  • Every time I hear the SNP mentioned in any context;
  • Every time I see poor old Nick Clegg's wee face;
  • Every time one of those stupid pictures with more stupid words on it goes viral;
  • Every time someone shroud-waves the NHS;
  • Every time Ed Miliband makes foreign policy capital about drowning migrants;
  • Every time I realise that the little scrote will probably be Prime Minister in two and a bit weeks.
Just for balance, here's a full list of the things that are making me happy:
  • Ruth Davidson
At least we're nearly there.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Islamic Enlightenment

I missed this when it first came out, but there's a Guardian long read purportedly about Islam and the Enlightenment. It's a slightly odd read, because its title, and presumably its intended point is:
Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment
The basis in the article itself for this is as follows:
Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.
This call, ubiquitous as it is, is wrongheaded, de Bellaigue argues, because Islamic countries have in fact embraced modernity, on their own terms, at least since the 19th century. In support of this he enters into a (genuinely) very interesting discursion into the paths towards modernity taken by Persia, Iraq & Egypt, including early travellers to the West and later innovations like newspapers and street lighting, munitions factories and nascent rights for women. To the extent that modernisation failed it was thanks to Western imperialism (and the establishment of Israel, natch). The article makes a point reasonably well - that countries in the Middle East have adopted the trappings of modern life.

But that's not what the article set out to argue. The intended argument was that Islam is in no need of an Enlightenment. Throughout the piece, Enlightenment and modernity are treated as synonyms. They are not. I am no philosopher, still less a theologian, but although the Enlightenment is seen as a precursor to the modern era in the West (the 18th century is often known as the Early Modern Period), it was a distinct philosophical movement with two key ideas: that reason and empirical observation should be preferred to deference and divine revelation; and that being human itself brought inalienable rights, distinct from traditional divisions of nationality or religion.

How is this relevant to Islam? This was, I think, best put by the Pope Emeritus in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 (about which I wrote this, 9 bloody years ago). The Pope was discussing the role of reason (more strictly, of the interplay of Christianity's hellenistic roots with Enlightenment thinking) in religion. He noted that the central plank of the Gospels is from the first verse of John. "In the Beginning was the Word". Logos, which means both 'word' and 'reason' is the essential nature of God. As the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus put it "not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature". This does not, however, read across to Islamic theology:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
The argument that Islam (not Muslim countries, but Islam itself) needs an Enlightenment is based on the perception that Islam requires submission to faith (that's what the word means), not engagement with it. Its Holy Book is seen as direct divine revelation and therefore incapable of error (whereas Christian texts, albeit divinely inspired, are the work of men). While the direction of travel within Christianity has overwhelmingly been away from literalism, within Islam Quranic literalism is mainstream. Reason, which is so central a part of the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition', needs to play a much greater part in Islamic theology. If it did, then the more murderous aspects of Islamism would have an antipathetic force within Islam.

This may or may not be right (it's an argument for a theologian to make not me), but it is not an argument that can be refuted by the presence of street lamps in Cairo, or munitions factories (or centrifuges) in Tehran.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Yellow Cards

Zoe Williams has a piece up about Angela Eagle's idea to:
Introduce a system into the house to combat uncivilised behaviour: yellow cards, hour-long bans rising to three-session exclusions for more serious offences.
Barracking – being often sexual in content – discourages women from seeking election in the first place, and this lack of representation then alienates women from the political process.
 And she notes that Angela Eagle was
Once memorably told by David Cameron “Calm down, dear” to indicate that, being female, she was stupid and hysterical and should defer to people who, having penises, were better than her.
The first thing that struck me about this was that David Cameron said that to her because she was barracking him - was shouting from her seat to try and disrupt his answer at PMQs - and shouting so loudly that it distracted him enough to tell her to shut up. Hansard also notes that he said "calm down to dear" to Ed Balls to, doubtless to indicate that he too is in a state of penislessness. Equally, the reason that both sides barrack each other has less to do with a gendered desire to disenfranchise women, than a partisan desire to derail opposing MPs. You just grab whatever stick you can.

The second thing it triggered was a very faint recollection of a sketch about the House of Commons in the 19th Century. Usually descriptions of barracking and heckling in the House is accompanied by po-faced mutterings about how far we've fallen, and how much more serious we were once upon a time. After a bit of googling, I found what I had half remembered in a book called "Random Recollections of the House of Commons by One of No Party" - God knows where I read it:
A Scene from the House of Commons
I shall allude to only one more scene of this kind. It occurred towards the close of last Session. An honourable member, whose name I suppress, rose, amidst the most tremendous uproar, to address the House. He spoke, and was received, as nearly as the confusion enabled me to judge, as follows :
I rise, Sir, (Ironical cheers, mingled with all sorts of zoological sounds), I rise, Sir, for the purpose of stating that I have... ('Oh! Oh! Baa!’ and sounds resembling the bleating of a sheep, mingled with loud laughter). Hon. Gentlemen may endeavour to put me down by their unmannerly interruptions, but I have a duty to perform to my con- (Ironical cheers, loud coughing, sneezing, and yawning extended to an incredible length, followed by bursts of laughter). I say, Sir, I have constituents who on this occasion expect that I...(Cries of ' Should sit down," and shouts of laughter). They expect, Sir, that on a question of such importance... ('O-o-a-a u-' and loud laughter, followed by cries of 'Order! Order!' from the Speaker).
"I tell honourable gentlemen who choose to conduct themselves in such a way, that I am not to be put down by... (Groans, coughs, sneezings, hems, and various animal sounds, some of which closely imitated the yelping of a dog, and the squeaking of a pig, interspersed with peals of laughter). I appeal... ('Cocke-leeri-o-co!’ The imitation, in this case, of the crowing of a cock was so remarkably good, that not even the most staid and orderly members in the house could preserve their gravity. The laughter which followed drowned the Speaker's cries of 'Order! Order!') I say, Sir, this is most unbecoming conduct on the part of an assembly calling itself de-" ('Bow-wow-wow!, and bursts of laughter).
Sir, may I ask, have honourable gentlemen who can... ('Mew-mew!, and renewed laughter). Sir, I claim the protection of the Chair. (The Speaker here again rose and called out “Order! Order!” in a loud and angry tone, on which the uproar in some measure subsided). 
If honourable gentlemen will only allow me to make one observation, I will not trespass further on their attention, but sit down at once (This was followed by the most tremendous cheering in earnest). I only beg to say, Sir, that I think this is a most dangerous and unconstitutional measure, and will therefore vote against it." The honourable gentleman then resumed his seat amidst deafening applause.
Maybe the po-faced mutterers are right - the standards of heckling really have deteriorated since those lost glory-days.